Last week, I discussed my biggest recommendation for grocery shopping more efficiently and economically – infrequent, major shopping trips. The essential counterpart to successfully doing this is meal planning. This is the heart of spending your grocery money wisely. I cannot stress how crucial it is to make meal planning a priority for organization and frugality. I don’t think anyone would argue with this notion, but when it comes down to actually following through, it may seem too rigid and overwhelming. However, I’ve found that planning for meals saves time in the long run and actually allows you the flexibility to change things around as needed.

Think about a successful restaurant. How could it thrive if not for a planned menu and the inventorying of items to help with ordering and food suppliers? I often think of my kitchen as my own little mini restaurant – it certainly feels like all I do sometimes is make meals and clean up afterwards! I would not be successful at keeping this going day in and day out were it not for having some kind of game plan. If meal planning is something you would like to improve upon but are not sure where to start, I’ve broken it down into basic step by step guidelines. A day or two before you plan on doing your shopping trip, sit down with some scrap paper and jot down the dates that will take you to the next shopping trip in a bulleted format. Then, here are my tips for where to go from there:

Step 1:  Inventory: Scan your freezer, fridge, and pantry areas. Jot down anything that can be used as an ingredient and how much you have. Three tilapia filets in the freezer? One cup of frozen beef stock? Half a red onion wrapped up? That jar of oyster sauce you bought once but never used? A box of couscous? A packet of taco seasoning? These items become the base of what you’re planning your meals around. This will allow you to spend less at the store overall by ensuring that you are maximizing what you already have at home.

Step 2: Take note of the “crazy nights.” Make an asterisk on any dates that are abnormally busy or where your schedule would make it near impossible for you to get dinner on the table. Two soccer games for two different kids at two different start times? Not the best night to try a new chicken marsala recipe! These will be the days where you get convenience food or find an alternative. Although I always endorse saving money and meal planning, I’ve learned that it’s smarter to “schedule” nights like this if need be because it still avoids impulse meals and overspending the rest of the cycle. However, if your typical schedule has LOTS of crazy evenings, think about ways you can avoid spending money and still incorporate your meal plan into these days. Breakfast for dinner before you leave for T-ball? Pre-making wraps and sandwiches to bring with you on the go?  During times when my son’s extracurricular activity schedule gets intense, I try not to overachieve in my meal planning, and I make sure to schedule a few “do your own thing” nights, which is basically when everyone needs to fend for themselves for dinner! It’s also pretty easy to schedule leftovers. If you have to leave for basketball practice at 6 on Thursday, make baked ziti on Wednesday so everyone can heat up a plate of leftovers the next day. Also, make sure you’ve taken a minute to consult with your spouse and/or any other members of the family about their schedule and/or preferences that week.

Step 3: Plan for the slightly-less-hectic nights: Does your daughter have a 4:30 dentist appointment on Wednesday and you know by the time you get home, it’ll be a little too late to start dinner? That’s a perfect night to use the slow cooker in the morning. Do you have plans to take the kids to a waterpark on Friday? It’ll only take a few minutes to prepare grilled cheese and tomato soup that night when you’re feeling wiped out! Do you have an errand to run after work on a night your husband will be home on time? Perhaps he can throw a steak on the grill while you commute home. Anticipating the realistic scenario each night you’re planning for is one of the most important elements to meal planning. Of course unexpected things come up and schedules change, but being prepared for everything is crucial.Step 4: Plan for the rest of the dates: Look at how many more dates you have to plan for and, looking back at your list of inventoried items, brainstorm about what meals you can make with them. Not sure where to start? has a great feature where you can search for recipes by ingredient. Once you have ensured you are using up the majority of what’s already in the house, think about what else you’d like to have. Scour your cookbooks. Just googling “easy weeknight meals” should supply you with endless ideas. The library is also a wonderful resource for cookbooks.

Step 5: Match your meals to your schedule: Now you’re going to “match up” the meals you’ve come up with into the dates you jotted down. Place meals that require more perishable ingredients in the beginning. Meals that use less perishable items can be made less of a priority to cook right away. Fresh spinach side dish? That should be cooked on your first night! Homemade pizza with jarred sauce – no rush on that. This will ensure that less goes to waste. This step gets easier as time goes on but it’s the most important step! Again, if you want to stop and get more highly-perishable produce midway through your cycle, that’s OK as long as you plan for it.

Step 6: Make your grocery list based on your meal plan: Review your written meal plan, and write your grocery list based on the recipes that each meal requires. You should be buying just what you need for that recipe. Buying an enormous bag of carrots might seem like a better idea than buying just four, but if you don’t have a plan for them, you risk wasting them. There are a few exceptions to this, but overall, keep it’s good to keep in mind.

Step 7: Think about lunches, breakfast, and snacks, too! Sometimes while spending time meal planning all these great dinners, I forget that I also need to eat lunch and snacks too! What do the kids need to get them through your meal cycle? What are you realistically going to want to pack for lunch for yourself? What healthy snacks and other goodies would be good to shop for? I have found that if I don’t actually plan at least one dessert-type “naughty” thing in my meal cycle, it may lead to me begging my husband to go out and get some emergency ice cream! So I will make sure to add my special chocolate chip cookies or brownies into my meal planning!

Step 8: Don’t forget non-grocery items: Inventory your health and beauty items, as well as your paper goods supply. Do you really need more toothpaste, or do you have enough to last the cycle? Buy only what you really need for that period. Again, there are a few exceptions to this. Sometimes, for example, if I match a coupon to a sale, I can get some items for free, so I may stock up a bit, but in general, stockpiling is not necessary unless you happen to be competing in an extreme couponing event!

Step 9: Prepare for shopping success: Pull any coupons you will definitely use, as well as any that might expire before the next trip in case they are worth using. Make sure to have a calculator with you, and have your list ready and clear. If you will be shopping with children, prep anything you need for them (snacks, games, books to read) in advance so you are prepared. Bring a snack and drink for yourself as well to curb any hunger that may pop up during your trip. Remember your reusable shopping bags. Finally, share your meal plan with the rest of your family to encourage everyone to be excited about organization and efficiency. Let them look forward to the meals ahead – it will help everyone to stay on task and avoid impulse food purchases.

Meal planning is just that – a plan. Family members get sick, schedules change, and sometimes –you just don’t feel like cooking! The beauty of a meal plan is that you are in control. If you’ve just had too hard of a day, you can “carry over” the meal that was scheduled into the next day – just make sure to use that defrosted meat you’ve already thawed before it’s too late. If you want to ditch your plan one night and try a new restaurant when the kids are sleeping over Grandma’s – go for it. A meal plan is an integral part of your practical pantry, but it can also be flexible. So go get started and good luck!